“You here on your spring break?” Said an astonished elderly woman while exiting mass. My nervous nod and smile made her plump cheeks tighten into a broad, loving smile.
“Bless you! Thank you so much for coming, bless your heart!” Some of our service trip group had decided to attend a Catholic mass at St. Peter Claver to experience some New Orleans culture. The mass was complete with a gospel choir and passionate preacher, not to mention a couple hundred spirited New Orleans residents all happy to welcome us to their church. The nineteen of us had fund-raised and paid to spend a week in New Orleans as volunteer construction workers for the St. Bernard Project. While we arrived there as amateurs, they taught us enough of the basics to put in drywall and flooring, frame doors, mud walls, apply baseboards, and plenty of other tasks. We left for Louisiana early Saturday morning, so I naturally stayed up until 2:30 AM folding laundry and packing for the trip. I took a quick two hour nap before getting up, showering, and going through the spring break room checklist with Nelson. Both of us were excited to get to hit the road and get together with the rest of the service group.
When we arrived to the night lights of New Orleans and weren’t able to see much of the city from the plane. On the van ride to our place to stay questions kept running through my head. Were some of the rundown houses I remnants of Katrina? What was here before and after the hurricane? Where would we be working? Those questions would have to wait a little longer, the first task was to settle in to Camp Hope. The camp was a converted school, first for volunteers after Katrina, and later for BP cleanup workers during the spill. It had recently been reopened for Katrina volunteers and we were one of the first groups to stay there since it reopened. The converted classrooms were outfitted with about 15 bunk-beds and comfortably fit the six guys in one and the thirteen girls in the other.
The first day in New Orleans we had breakfast at the Waffle House and feasted on servings of hash-browns, eggs, toast and, of course, a variety of differently flavored waffles. Later that day, the trip leaders had scheduled us with tours of the area, showing us some of the reasons for Katrina’s large impact on the city. We toured the levees, parts of the severely reduced wetlands and saw illustrations of the surrounding area’s topography, and how New Orleans lies primarily below sea level. After the tour we went to a local street market and bought a few souvenirs and returned home for dinner and a nightly group meeting.